APS Staff were recently asked about our thoughts on the future, to help with a planning exercise for coming years. The following are somewhat frank comments I submitted in response to two of the questions, on biggest challenges and opportunities for the future. I doubt they represent the average views of APS staff right now, but they do capture a number of my concerns and ideas at the present so I thought I'd share a bit more widely... I'd certainly be interested in others' thoughts on these and other ideas for what the relatively near future may hold.
Five biggest (but perhaps not most likely) challenges:
1. Retaining the trust of the physics community as a filter and enabler of physics communication (journals, meetings, new media). Trust is fragile; mistakes that drain that trust could come from any front; openness and honesty in all dealings with the community and society at large are paramount.
2. Stagnation and loss of innovative edge due to an aging staff. Turnover at APS is low; a few strategic hires to spur innovation may be needed. The challenge here is that new emerging media (social networks, research blogging, "open science") may replace APS's role in communicating physics, unless we embrace them first.
3. APS (and other scientific societies) may be the targets of intensified political attacks in coming years. It is essential (see point 1) that APS continue to stand for the truths of science, but this stance may cause harm to the society in such a climate. APS may need to choose whether to ever put the survival of the APS ahead of the good of science and physics as a whole.
4. As an information-centered organization, APS is vulnerable to a wide variety of electronic attacks. So far the relatively low profile of the organization appears to have helped keep us safe. That may not last. Protection of electronic assets and particularly sensitive data about individual researchers needs to be a priority (otherwise, see 1.) People who don't like something we do or publish may have reason to try to take down our electronic infrastructure, crippling the organization.
5. The center of vitality of physics research will likely shift in coming years to emerging powers in Asia - in particular China's research efforts and successes have shown tremendously rapid growth in recent years. APS should retain centrality within the "western", English-speaking physics community, but that will likely be a much smaller part of the whole in the near future.
5 biggest opportunities:
1. Continuing to be a trusted source of physics information in a world where trusted information is increasingly lost amid noise. With the decline of traditional science journalism, APS may have a greater role in communicating not just within the physics community but to the general public, as it carries out its goal of diffusing the knowledge of physics.
2. Finding ways to make up-to-date physics information more easily accessible, actionable, and relevant from the researcher's desktop or lab bench. Publishing in new forms - not just pdf articles, but machine-understandable content, datasets, "open science" ideas, on mobile platforms, perhaps notes and informal commentary from other researchers.
3. Providing open API's associated with our data: articles, researchers, institutions and their inter-relationships, and any added social data. The creation of a "platform" for collaboration and interaction and third-party development could powerfully accelerate the advancement of physics (and science in general, as such a project should probably be done in collaboration with other similar organizations)
4. Going beyond a US-centric perspective, APS has a huge opportunity to act as an NGO interested in the progress of physics in nations around the world. A few remote branch offices or localized versions of our web presence (aps.cn perhaps?) along with real interactions on issues relevant to the local physics community could greatly enhance the trust physicists around the world place in us for our primary functions.
5. 5 years is an eternity on the internet. 5 years ago the iPhone, twitter and youtube didn't exist; facebook was just starting out. Very likely the most important opportunities (and challenges) APS will face in the next 5 years don't even exist right now. Being prepared to quickly take advantage of unexpected opportunities will be an opportunity in itself, requiring us to be nimble and have considerable flexibility in how we make decisions and allocate resources.